By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Cyberpunk dystopia draws on conventions from cyberpunk and young adult literature. In these novels, we see the blended spaces of cyber and physical worlds and the potential of the punk to change the world for the better. But the concept of cyborgs, in some form or the other, is a strong presence in cyberpunk.
Defining a Cyborg
“I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” This is the closing line of literary critic Donna Haraway’s very famous 1984 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto”. What exactly does she mean by that? Well, first we need to think about a cyborg.
There are a lot of different definitions for cyborg, but broadly, we usually think of a cyborg as a hybrid, a combination of organic and mechanical matter. Our imaginations might jump immediately to science fiction, to the Cybermen of Doctor Who, the replicants of Bladerunner, or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica—beings neither human nor machine, beings that certainly don’t exist in our world today.
Cyborgs are Everywhere?
But the term is also used for much less science-fiction technologies, including medical devices. A person with a pacemaker or an artificial hip might be considered a cyborg since her organic matter is combined with a mechanism that ensures her survival and wellbeing.
Under that definition, cyborgs are actually quite common in our world today. Some people even go so far as to argue that a human being with a cell phone that is central to her wellbeing and identity can be thought of as a cyborg. Because really, that cellphone, although not literally implanted into the person’s forearm, is so present in the hand or pocket that the person can be seen as having a cyborg presence in the world.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Overcoming Gender Difference
Donna Haraway would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. Why? A goddess is the most powerful female presence in a universe, right? And yet, the goddess is still defined by a masculine term, the god. One of the great questions of the feminist utopians of the 1970s is, what would a world without gender binaries look like?
The concept of the cyborg, for Haraway and others, might be a way to actually get there, to get to a utopian place in which gender differences are neither divisive nor laden with power imbalances. It’s not that a cyborg is stronger than the human or the machine. Instead, it allows us to think beyond our binaries. To think beyond human and machine as opposites, beyond male and female as opposites.
Learn more about utopian hybridity.
Utopia and Cyborg
That’s why there’s a utopian impulse associated with the cyborg, and with the cyberpunk genre that developed in the 1980s with such foundational novels as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a sci-fi adventure novel that takes cyberspace as a major setting and computer hackers as the central characters. Cyberpunk novels often feature advanced information technology that allows much of the action to take place in cyberspace rather than physical space, with an emphasis on the dangers and the pleasures of the spaces between the cyber and physical worlds.
This means that the characters who navigate cyberspace, whether they have implanted devices or not, are often punks, performing identities— often subversive identities—that are not dependent on their physical bodies.
How does someone perform an identity? Well, on a basic level, a 14-year-old girl may have an avatar who looks just like her. Or, she might have an avatar that’s a thirty-year-old security specialist with an alpha-male body and personality, and she gets treated as such within cyberspace.
In all three cases—her physical self or either cyber self—a combination of her appearance and her behavior affect how she is treated by other people in that world. That’s what we mean by performing an identity, and we all do it, all the time, even when we aren’t conscious of it. In part because of the power of any user to enact a new and different identity, cyberpunk is a perfect genre for thinking about the conflict between the individual and society, a conflict we see at the center of much utopian literature.
Learn more about apocalyptic fiction.
The Punk as the Outsider
We might initially think of a punk as an undesirable person, perhaps a hoodlum, in the vein of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge. But if you have a totalitarian society, a straight-up dystopia, as Anthony Burgess and others have shown, a punk can be a hero, someone who subverts the power structures.
Cyberpunk privileges the outsider, or sometimes the group of outsiders, who are usually young and incredibly talented hackers, and who mount a seemingly impossible attack against the megacorporations that attempt to fully control cyberspace, which is impossible when punks like our heroes are there to preserve the freedoms of the individual, often through completely illegal means.
As we see repeatedly, where there’s utopian potential, there’s also dystopian potential. So whether you’re an adult reading YA cyberpunk and wondering what the world is coming to or you’re a teenager whose own generation is the object of scrutiny in these books, you come to the same point.
Anxieties about Society
Through satire or earnest—what Tom Moylan would call critical utopia and classical utopia—we get at the same anxieties about contemporary American society. The internet has amazing potential to create a better, more egalitarian world, but we may be going about it all wrong in allowing totalitarian governments or corporations to control it, which may lead us to create not only a more oppressive world but a new generation of young people who rely on technology without truly understanding it.
Imagining a utopian future in the 21st century means committing to understand technology, not just as a user but as a creator. And whether you’re mocking or admiring, you can see that the cyborg isn’t just a representation of a possible dream of a future that moves beyond hierarchies and binaries. For better or worse, the cyborg is here.
Common Questions about Cyborgs and Cyberpunk Dystopian Fiction
We usually think of a cyborg as a hybrid, a combination of organic and mechanical matter. But the term is also used for much less science-fiction technologies, including medical devices. A person with a pacemaker or an artificial hip might be considered a cyborg.
The concept of the cyborg might be a way to get to a utopian place in which gender differences are neither divisive nor laden with power imbalances. A cyborg allows us to think beyond binaries. To think beyond human and machine as opposites, beyond male and female as opposites.
Cyberpunk privileges the outsiders, who are usually young and incredibly talented hackers, and who mount a seemingly impossible attack against the megacorporations that attempt to fully control cyberspace.